Suit Challenges Feds’ Failure to Protect Rare Carnivore from Extinction
MISSOULA, MONT.—(ENEWSPF)—October 20, 2014. Today, a unique coalition of conservationists, animal welfare activists, hunters, anglers, and an ecologist sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in U.S. District Court of Montana for refusing to protect rare wolverines from extinction under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Fewer than 300 wolverines remain in the contiguous United States.
Senior federal bureaucrats recently ordered the reversal of the Service’s science-based recommendation to list the wolverine as a threatened species, prompting widespread outcry over the improper politicization of the ESA and failure to base the listing decision on the best science. Climate change is a major threat to wolverines as it is depleting the requisite snowpack in their high elevation habitat.
“These fierce carnivores rarely shy from a fight, but even their legendary tenacity cannot overcome the challenge posed by climate change without our help,” said Drew Kerr, carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians.
Wolverines rely on deep snowpack long into the spring and summer to store food and raise their young. Science shows that climate change will result in the loss of nearly two-thirds of the snowy habitat needed by wolverines remaining in the contiguous U.S. within 75 years. Fewer than 300 wolverines remain in the lower 48 states, though habitat could easily support twice that number.
After reviewing the best available science, Service biologists and an independent panel of experts concluded climate induced habitat impacts threaten wolverines with extinction. The Society for Conservation Biology and the American Society of Mammalogists reached similar conclusions. So, on February 1, 2013, the Service announced its plan to list wolverines as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.
However, in an abrupt turnabout, on May 30, 2014, Service Region Six Director Noreen Walsh ordered biologists in the agency’s Montana field office to reverse their recommendation and withdraw the proposal to list. The Walsh memo did not cite any new studies or research. The decision to withdraw the proposed listing focused on a single area of scientific uncertainty about precisely how much snowpack will be lost and how quickly, and downplayed or ignored other threats including motorized winter recreation, trapping, and habitat fragmentation caused by roads, resource extraction, and development.
“Denying protection based on uncertainty about precisely where and how fast known threats will manifest is an irresponsible and disingenuous abandonment of the precautionary principle embodied in the ESA,” said Western Environmental Law Center’s Rocky Mountain office director and attorney Matthew Bishop.
The ESA requires that listing decisions be based on the best available science alone. Legislative history, the language of the Act and case law all make clear that scientific certainty is neither expected nor required. The benefit of any doubt is to be afforded to the imperiled species. Yet the Service increasingly bows to political pressure from industry and states that oppose ESA protections.
Matthew Bishop and John Mellgren of the Western Environmental Law Center, and Sarah McMillan of WildEarth Guardians are representing Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Cascadia Wildlands, the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, Footloose Montana, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Wild Swan, George Wuerthner, Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, Kootenai Environmental Alliance, Native Ecosystem Council, Oregon Wild, the Swan View Coalition, WildEarth Guardians, and Wildlands Network.
Wolverines, elusive members of the weasel family, require huge, high-elevation territories. Deep snowpack persisting into the summer supports wolverine denning behavior. Solitary hunters capable of taking much larger prey than their medium stature would suggest, wolverines also scavenge and store carrion in snow banks as they roam through boreal forest and over snowcapped mountain ranges.
Formerly widespread and numerous throughout the American West, fewer than 300 wolverines remain in the contiguous U.S., residing mostly in the Rocky and Cascade mountains. This small population relies on individual dispersers to maintain healthy genetic diversity. Adolescent males disperse farthest, with breeding females holding smaller territories closer to their birthplaces. In recent years, wolverines have dispersed into Colorado, Oregon, northeast Utah, and southwest Wyoming. It remains unclear whether these intrepid individuals will establish new territories and breeding populations. Wolverine distribution and population size are indicators of the relative health of western landscapes.
Source: Western Environmental Law Center